SCHOENBERG: Moses und Aron / Ilona Steingruber, soprano (Young Girl); Ursula Zollenkops, contralto (Sick Woman); Helmut Krestschmar, tenor (Young Man); Helmut Krebs, tenor (Aron); Horst Günter, baritone (Man); Hermann Rieth, bass (Ephraimite); Hans Herbert Fiedler, bass (Moses); Ernst Max Luhr, bass; Hartwig Stuckmann, tenor (Naked Youth); North German Radio Chorus & Symphony Orchestra; Hans Rosbaud, conductor / Sony Classical 886446206691 (live: March 12, 1954)
This is the world premiere recording of Schoenberg’s only opera, given three years after the composer’s death. Although essentially completed in 1932, Schoenberg let it languish on the back burner for almost 20 years, unable or unwilling to come up with the music to complete the last act. Eventually, he simply gave instructions that the text of the last act was to be read grammatically onstage—a bit of a cop-out from a composer who certainly could have finished his own composition
Despite his strict use of serial techniques, the opera has a tremendous sensual appeal. There’s something utterly hypnotic in its orchestral and choral writing, and the lead roles are exceptionally challenging, particularly the tenor role of Aron. The only two really great recordings of it in the stereo era are Pierre Boulez’s second performance on DGG and the Sylvain Cambreling recording on Hänssler Classic. There are some who really love the Georg Solti recording, but he purposely changed many of Schoenberg’s rhythms in order to make it more palatable to average opera-goers.
Hans Rosbaud, who had an enormous reputation in Germany and Austria as a conductor of modern music, certainly does not disappoint here, and he was very lucky to assemble a first-rate cast for the world premiere on March 12, 1954. He was even more fortunate that the American Columbia label had Goddard Lieberson as its A&R director for classical music, and that he chose to release this performance on commercial records. Lieberson had wide-ranging tastes but, by and large, wasn’t much of an opera lover, which is the reason that the only time Columbia Masterworks featured recordings of mainstream operas was during a brief period in the early 1950s when they had the exclusive rights to use singers, chorus and the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. Otherwise, Columbia’s opera output was geared more towards contemporary works that no one else really wanted to take a chance on: Stravinsky’s Oepipus Rex and The Rake’s Progress (conducted by the composer), Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Berg’s Wozzeck (in a live performance conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos), this Moses und Aron, Schoenberg’s Erwärtung conducted by Robert Craft, and several years later Stravinsky’s Nightingale and a stereo remake of The Rake’s Progress, also conducted by Stravinsky.
Although this recording is quite old and venerable, it hasn’t really seen much exposure on compact disc, so this was my first listening to it. I found the cast to be the special glory of this performance. Rosbaud clearly has a firm grasp of the score, but for whatever reason the orchestra sounds stiff and too reserved in expression. I place the blame more on the musicians than the conductor, however; although they play cleanly and make no mistakes, they quite obviously haven’t a clue how to phrase this music. Every note and chord emerges as if it were a single entity in a cross-stitch pattern; nothing flows. There is no legato, and thus no sweep. I’m sorry to sound a negative note in what was obviously a massive undertaking, and certainly of a high professional caliber, but that’s the way I feel. Yes, it is far better in terms of technical control than Stravinsky’s own world premiere of The Rake’s Progress in 1951 (a truly dismal account of the score by the orchestra, again despite some outstanding singing by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Jennie Tourel and Robert Rounseveille), but lack of flow is lack of flow. And this really is a shame since Helmut Krebs is clearly one of the best Arons on record.
There’s another drawback to this recording, and that is the oddly boxy mono sound. The performance sounds very much like one of those radio studio recordings of the early 1950s, i.e. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s RAI Ring cycle. You can forgive it in the case of the Furtwängler Ring because he did conduct with sweep and a legato flow, but it’s harder to take in this case because the music itself suffers. Schoenberg’s lack of a “home base” harmonically is difficult to take under even the best circumstances, particularly for conventional opera-lovers, but when the whole performance sounds like it was cranked out by a machine the listener suffers exponentially.
It is a great irony, however, to notice that the chorus, which has a major role in this opera as it does in Verdi’s Nabucco, is simply splendid, but the chop-chop playing of the orchestra inhibits one’s enjoyment of their achievement. A mixed bag, then, and I would recommend that you sample the performance for yourself on YouTube and make up your own mind about it before acquiring it. You may disagree with my assessment.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley